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Concurrent Mediation Of Parental Disputes And Of Parent-Teen Conflicts

It may come as no surprise that conflicts between teenagers and their parents may escalate in the midst of separation and divorce. As is well known, children are easily swept into the raging currents of parental struggles over them. As disputes build, the children of a partnership may be pulled away from one parent or the other. Sibling bonds may be strained, and relationships with other relatives and family friends may be torn. Many parents work hard to mitigate the impact, but some may find this particularly difficult if they have teens at home.

Teenagers’ responses to separation and divorce vary dramatically, as do those of other children, but teens have the added dimension of their own unique developmental processes. Teen behavior can be erratic and utterly bewildering to their parents. However, normal development for teenagers includes the creation of identities separate from those dominated by parental influence. Teens begin to form their own judgments about the world around them. As a result, normal teen behavior may result in resistance to adult authority. They may act out, pushing boundaries and exasperating their parents. Or they may act in, withdrawing to a point that is worrisome. When we add parental separation and divorce into the mix, including potential dislocation from extended family, family friends, and particularly from peers, the results can be explosive.

The legal system usually does a good job at protecting children from witnessing their parents battle in the courts. However, some parents may leave the court room to face resentful or despondent teenagers at home. Teens have their own ways of expressing their views. For example, they may refuse to do schoolwork or chores at home, or even to come home at night. As most parents of teens may attest, while their children are not legal parties, they are certainly parties to the functioning of the family home.

As mediators, we hope that our efforts will provide a proactive intervention for families, and that at the very least it will serve as damage control for parents entering the courts. However, we know that often the parent-child relationship itself needs damage control. When teens are involved, parents going through divorce and separation may have little energy to fight battles at home. Teenagers may be lost in the process, left to their own devices without parental oversight, at a time when they are most likely to be swayed by risk-taking behavior seen in some of their peers. The behavioral, emotional, and social impact may be long-term.

Working in the field, we can find referral numbers for community services. Most of us have a Rolodex of resources to give to parents, including numbers for counselors working with teenagers. And often in the midst of divorce, parents are able to find an outside service for their teens in the process of rebuilding their family lives. But sometimes parents aren’t able to access such services, due to financial or emotional constraints. And commonly, a teen may refuse services altogether. A beleaguered mediator may be left with few other options to provide. But is therapy the only option for these parents, who are leaving the battlefield with the other parent, only to find themselves mired in the landmines of parent-teen struggles?

In fact, there is another resource, occasionally found in community mediation centers. While often overlooked and under-funded, parent-teen mediation is a unique process specifically designed for families going through day-to-day household struggles. In such a process, teens and their parents are empowered to discuss their conflicts in a safe environment. For teenagers, mediation is often more appealing than therapy, as teens are acutely sensitive to stigma. They may have the perception that therapy is only for kids who are “troubled,” despite the fact that it may simply offer an outlet for normal reactions to difficult situations. Parent-teen mediation is not a substitute for individual or family therapy, but it does offer teens and parents the opportunity to voice their hopes and concerns in an open manner, and to negotiate resolutions to the daily conflicts that arise from living under the same roof.

Parent-teen mediation is an accessible, short-term intervention with an innovative model. Co-mediation is provided by adult and youth mediators working together. Both are well-trained in mediation techniques, parent-teen dynamics, and how to model effective adult-to-teen communication. By participating in parent-teen mediation, a teenage disputant may find the liberating sense that he or she may speak out and be fully heard. The participation of youth mediators may run counter to a teen’s prior experiences of being talked down to by adults, and as a result may be more open to hearing a parent’s concerns. Through this process a parent may hear, perhaps for the first time, what is really going on in the mind of the person who provides so much energy to the home environment. Once each party has had the chance to tell his or her story, together they can discuss the impact of each other’s behavior, and can negotiate agreements regarding a particular challenge. Through this process, the parties may deal with difficult subjects, such as school attendance, teen relationships, and ultimately the impact of parental decisions such as separation and divorce.

Several years ago, I mediated a case involving a mother and her teenage daughter two years after a dissolution. In a particularly poignant session, the daughter told her mom for the first time that she had moved out of her mom’s house because she felt upset that the divorce was all her fault. When her mother expressed astonishment, the daughter explained that her mom had mentioned that she was divorcing her dad for the daughter’s sake. Both parties found the sudden revelation that this passing comment gave the teen the impression that she was to blame, when in fact this was not her mother’s intended message. The moment was emotional and transformational, and the parties were then able to work out their conflicts and re-connect.

This experience left me with one of those “if only” sentiments. What if the daughter had been able to express her thoughts during the divorce? What if I or another mediator were able to meet with the mother and daughter together during the divorce to clear up this misconception? And conclusively, what if I were able to offer parent-teen mediation concurrently with mediation between the parents?

For me, concurrent family mediation provides the opportunity to maximize the promise of mediation. It provides the opportunity for families to address conflicts on two levels. They can come to mediation for assistance in resolving seemingly intractable conflicts between the parents, and separately each parent can bring in teenagers to mediate the typical parent-teen struggles that accompany separation and divorce. Taken together, the processes yield results greater than the sum of their parts.

There is much promise in concurrent mediation of parent-to-parent and parent-teen conflicts. The parallel processes allow the mediator to offer opportunities that may not be available otherwise. The mediator educates teens and their families about the boundaries between parental decision-making and the relational negotiations between parents and their children. As we know, this is a boundary that many families violate; demonstrating the differences between adult-to-adult issues versus teen-to-adult ones can strengthen this critical boundary. While teen mediators do not participate in the parent-to-parent mediation process, their participation in parent-teen mediation helps emphasize that these are two very different discussions, though the issues may overlap. Additionally, a teen disputant may learn more about the legal system, and may be reassured that the parents are working hard to make good decisions on his or her own behalf. Further, by hearing from her or his own child, a parent may learn more about the negative impact of bashing the other parent. In my practice, the focus is almost exclusively on the relationship with the parent that is currently in the room; conflicts between the teen and the other parent are addressed in a separate forum directly with that parent.

Mediators talk very effectively about the impact on children from ongoing parental disputes, but the opportunity for a child to express his or her own experience is particularly powerful. I have witnessed deep parental disputes dissolve upon hearing the words of their own children. Parents may suddenly recognize the paradox that while they are fighting about the best interests of their children, it may be that the fight itself is the biggest problem.

By participating in concurrent mediation processes, parents have an opportunity to look at their situations with fresh eyes, and to address and resolve conflicts with their co-parent and their teenagers simultaneously. As a result, they may strive for peace on both fronts.


Cory Mathews

Cory Mathews is a family mediator at Clackamas County Family Court Services.  He has provided court-connected and parent-teen mediation for over ten years.  He has eighteen years of experience working with teenagers, in particular facilitating negotiations between parents and their runaway and homeless teens to allow a safe return home. … MORE >

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